Don’t let exam stress consume your family

The Telegraph, 17.05.15 with GCSE and A-level exams around the corner, this is a testing time of year for youngsters. Glynis Kozma consults the experts on handling the pressure. Features HMC member Andrew Fleck, headmaster of Sedbergh School and Ben Vessey, headmaster of Canford School.

Andrew Fleck, headmaster of Sedbergh School, knows exactly what parents are facing: his twin daughters are taking AS-levels. “Parents can face two alternative challenges: the child who seems to do too little and the obsessive who never stops,” he suggests.

“In the first scenario, parents must trust their child – when they say they want to do well, they usually mean it. Try to help them with short-term daily goals, because the challenge with revision is maintaining the good intentions.”

If you have more than one child in the family studying for exams, the challenge is not only doubled but further complicated because, as all parents know, siblings are very different. Boys are notoriously last-minute crammers (research has shown that they usually perform better when assessed through final exams than through coursework) whereas girls tend to prefer a steady, structured approach to revision.

Student approaches may differ, but the experts are united on the need for parents to trust their children.

“When it comes to revision, we need to release control,” says Hannah Ryan, Support for Learning teacher at Canford. “Teenagers react differently: some will eagerly accept offers of help while others prefer a parent-free zone.

"Giving advice may be perceived as criticism and we should respect their autonomy. Talking to your child and asking open questions like, 'What did you cover today?’ or 'Which methods work best for you?’ can be less confrontational.”

Fleck supports limited revision by advising: “Four hours a day is quite enough; if they manage this praise them, but if they don’t, just move on.” Teachers and psychologists all agree on avoiding distractions: make the revision area a social-media-free zone and don’t allow revision in front of the television.

Don’t nag, Andrew Fleck insists, because it simply raises stress levels and creates simmering resentment which reduces productivity further. And if you are tempted to offer bribes, whether that’s hard cash for every A*, or even a car, think again.

Andrew Fleck is adamant: “It’s better to reward effort, from the earliest age, rather than offer incentives based on results because this only adds to the pressure. I have never seen it work.”

It’s all about balance though: treats and socialising are encouraged but avoid junk food and especially sugar.

Vessey advises parents: “The key is maintaining the right attitude in terms of embracing the challenges of exams, but also using the outcomes – whatever they may be – in a constructive way. Other doors with exciting horizons will open even if some may close, should grades not be what were hoped for. Just be prepared to knock if that situation arises.”

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